From ‘Dracula,’ ‘Frankenstein’ to ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Lord of the Rings’: Film Legend Christopher Lee Held Sway

Christopher Lee

Christopher Lee, who passed away in London June 7 at the age of 93 of heart and respiratory problems — will always be known for playing Dracula— but, oh, there was so much more.

His was a life in full—and sometimes, he surprised us after a period of absence by his re-appearance, better and bigger than ever.   In this way, he was something like the movie, “Dracula.” He would always come back in yet another film, another sequel, another apparition for that matter.

Lee, who began life as a member of an aristocratic English military family, wanted to fly but an eye problem prevented it. He worked for British intelligence for a time.  And then, he decided to become an actor. After stage stints and a small part in the Laurence Olivier’s black-and-white version of “Hamlet,” he emerged from the British horror movie works, Hammer Films, to play not only Dracula time and time again but also the creature in the Frankenstein epics which Hammer also made.

The Hammer style in the 1950s and 1960s was color—blood red, dripping from teeth, necks and Victorian low-cut bodices. They hardly resembled the Universal black-and-white films of Bela Lugosi’s time.  But Lee, with a tony aristocratic and recognizable voice, added class to these films, along with Peter Cushing, who played Dr. Frankenstein and Dracula’s nemesis in many films.

Lee’s Dracula was singular—not quite like the stilted living ghost of Lugosi, not as sexy as Frank Langella and not as weird as Gary Oldman. Lee was lean, scary and totally hypnotic and authoritative.

Those were qualities he brought to his later, resurrection-mode films as the deeply compromised evil wizard Saruman in “The Lord of the Rings” films and another villain, Count Dooku in the prequel “Star Wars” movies.

He appeared in 250 films—including as a villain and nemesis for Roger Moore’s James Bond in “The Man With the Golden Arm.”

But wait, there’s more: Lee was by all accounts a swell singer, singing “Name Your Poison” in a film called “The Return of Captain Invincible,” and he merged operas with heavy metal in recordings he made on which he also sang. He appeared in “Sweeney Todd” and “Corpse Bride” from director Tim Burton, king of the intellectually weird in cinema.

He played Sherlock Holmes and Rasputin the mad monk.

He hosted Saturday Night Live in 1978 and played a character called Doctor Death.

He was knighted by Prince Charles. So, that’s Sir Dracula to you.

He was married for 54 years to the Danish painter and former model Birgit Gitte Kroncke.

The world learned of his death today. I would — out of respect — check that, just to be sure.

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